Now I'm getting the chance to read books I didn't have time for before. Think of me whenever you see the slogan "So many books, so little time!" Now I've got the time.  Cheers, Fred.

Nine Essential Things I’ve Learned about Life

Book Number: 
Date Fred Read: 
August 2018
Fred's Rating: 
Harold S. Kushner
Total Pages: 

Harold S. Kushner is rabbi laureate of Temple Israel in Natick, Massachusetts, having long served that congregation. His books include the huge bestseller When Bad Things Happen to Good People. This, his thirteenth book, was a gift. (For his books I’ve read, click on his name.)

The Amazon website for the hardcover edition I was given is

[None of the ISBN-10, ISBN-13, or ASIN numbers on Amazon’s websites for the three editions (Kindle, hardcover, or paperback) are recognized by Amazon, thus the ‘no image Circle' appears. I think this new change by Amazon is not good. However, you can see the images of this book's covers at the website above.]

The home page has a good summary (click on ‘Read more’). I recommend two ‘Top customer reviews’: the first by ythriq, whose very long second sentence is a compacted list of topics separated by semicolons (read it a second time slowly enough to reflect upon each of the many topics therein) and the second by JJ Writer, which briefly focuses on the author, not the two books mentioned.

Use Amazon’s preview option ‘Look inside’ to scroll down to the 2-pp Contents, which includes most of the first two chapters. The occasional omission of a page or two usually does not change the overall message of these chapters; when it does I fill in the key concepts in an omission. Unfortunately, only the Kindle edition's preview includes the 2-pp Preface, but it ends too soon, after only a few pages into Ch. 1.

Because it is a key to this book, I first give here the first paragraph of the author’s Preface: “This book is in part a memoir, a description of the path I followed from adolescence to a career as a rabbi, and the challenge my wife and I faced when our son was diagnosed with an incurable illness. It is also the story of how organized religion, in all of its branches and formulations, has changed over the course of my lifetime. The religion I teach and practice is very different from the religion I was taught. I blame no one for this change except perhaps the calendar. I was born in 1935. Most of my teachers at rabbinical school had been born in the nineteenth century. Most of my congregants were born in the last third of the twentieth century, and many of their children in the twenty-first. Rethinking religion and theology to address the spiritual needs of that generation has been the defining issue of my rabbinate and underlies much of what I write about in this book.” The Preface ends with this thought: “And above all, I am grateful to the Source of all my spiritual insight and understanding, for giving me the ability to recognize where people hurt and giving me the language to ease their pain.”

In Chapter One (pp 6-16) – Lessons Learned Along the Way – pages 9 and 13-16 are omitted in Amazon’s preview of the hardcover edition. I select next some paragraphs I feel are especially important to understand Rabbi Harold S. Kushner's life experiences – first what he was taught and second the three types of people he has dealt with. [Comments by me are in square brackets.]

From page 9: “My years at rabbinical school were an extraordinary intellectual feast. For four years (plus a year of independent study in Israel), I was confronted on a daily, if not hourly, basis by great minds, great scholars, men who dominated (and in some cases had created) their area of expertise. I had the privilege three times a week of watching the mind of Saul Lieberman analyze a puzzling page of the Talmud. I was introduced to a new level of biblical scholarship, at once critical and reverent. And I met the man who would change my life, Mordecai Kaplan. Where my other professors had answers to text-related questions, Professor Kaplan had questions to challenge the answers we brought to class. He accomplished the Copernican revolution of moving the center of gravity in religion from divinely ordained observances to the collective will of the community. [The Copernican revolution of science also moved the center of gravity of the solar system, then a short time later to science in general, changing the mind from myths to measurements and the importance of verifying or falsifying science descriptions.] Judaism was what serious Jews did, not what books described them as doing. Christianity would be defined by how Christians acted today, not by what medieval scholars wrote long ago. In the process of teaching me, he prepared me for the crisis that would arise from the one serious flaw in my otherwise excellent rabbinical education. More about that later.”

From page 14: “My job called for me to listen carefully to what congregants were saying, sometimes to pierce the veil of anger or mockery in which they phrased their questions, and to try to hear the faint echo of a soul yearning for a meaningful relationship to God if it could be presented to them in terms that they could intellectually and morally respect.” [John Shelby Spong captured coexisting of religion and science with the short phrase ’the heart can’t worship what the mind rejects.’ Science can teach modern minds to not just reject myths but to recognize myths or stories for what they were – neither history nor a credible way to understanding something, but some myths of antiquity use allegory to tell a meaningful story.]

From pages 15-16: “Measured by the scale I have discussed here, the congregants in my synagogue come in three flavors. There are those, may God bless them and may their tribe increase, who love their religion and can’t get enough of it. They take classes, attend services, staff committees, volunteer to bring meals to shut-ins, and are always looking for ways to make things better. They do it not in the expectation that God will think more kindly of them but because they like themselves better when they do those things. Then there are those who show up only for major services and the occasional family bar mitzvah. (I wonder if there is any other aspect of their lives where they ask how little they can get for what it costs.) But perhaps the most interesting ones are the people who challenge me, not as a kind of game (‘let’s see if we can stump the rabbi') but out of a genuine willingness to learn. They have found that religion as it has been presented to them throughout their lives is unworthy of either their intellectual respect or emotional attachment. Their implicit deal with me is that they will take their religion more seriously if I can show them not how old and time-tested it is but where it can answer their most profound questions, questions about relationships, about life’s unfairness, about right and wrong, about revenge and forgiveness, and about the meaning and purpose of their lives. Nobody at school told me that this would be my challenge, but hardly a day has passed since then without my confronting it. That was the flaw in my rabbinic education. When I was ordained a rabbi at age twenty-five, they told me I was ready to go forth and teach. The truth was, I was at best ready to go forth and learn.”

The above ending of Ch. 1 (on page 16) clearly shows that the “one serious flaw in my otherwise excellent rabbinical education” was his having the challenge to “answer their most profound questions," where “their” refers to those who have realized that “religion as it has been presented to them throughout their lives is unworthy of either their intellectual respect or emotional attachment” This is the challenge not just for Judaism but for all religions, both theistic and non-theistic.

In this book Rabbi Harold S. Kushner tells the story of his life and the challenges he has met along the way. I was surprised to receive this gift book at nearly the same time as I received my preordered Parker Palmer book 767. This was a fortunate coincidence to receive, read and review back-to-back the stories of these two men. Their stories have insights that were more similar than I would have guessed. This book, as with Parker J. Palmer’s last book, I rate at five stars and add my comment: think six stars! I suggest readers learn from them back-to-back, as the stories support each other in insights and depths. They make a powerful pair.